In The Irony of Manifest Destiny, William Pfaff argues for a return to realpolitik—basing our foreign policy on our own interests rather than an ideology of “improving” the rest of the world. I am torn on this question, as I dare say most people are. On one hand, I really do hate the massive amount of injustice that I see throughout the world. I hate the explicit sexism throughout the world. And left to their own devices, it seems the one thing you can count on humans to do is to go to war with each other. On the other hand, I know that such an endeavor is hopeless.
Even more than this, there is an assumption at the base of our ideological foreign policy that I always argue against: the end of history. Underlying conservative thinking is always that wherever we are is basically the destination of our historical journey. This kind of thinking indicates that we may be rough around the edges, but otherwise we are perfect. And it is only people who think they are pretty much perfect who can rightly tell everyone else how to live. I don’t like people like that. Nations like that are a good deal worse.
But I can go back and forth on this issue. For example, the ideological imperialism of the Romans and of Napoleon Bonaparte had good and long lasting consequences. Just the same, I cannot bring to mind any American imperialism with similarly good consequences, unless we count the Marshall Plan. But we shouldn’t count it. The question is not whether Americans have fundamentally decent instincts; it is whether we can improve the world by force.
Pfaff makes the case against “helpful” imperialism in a couple of paragraphs toward the end of the book:
Had a noninterventionist policy been followed in the 1960s, there would have been no American war in Indochina. The struggle there would have been recognized as nationalist in motivation, unsusceptible to solutions by foreigners, and inherently limited in its international consequences, whatever they might be—as proved to be the case. The United States would never have been defeated, its army demoralized, or its students radicalized. There would have been no American invasion of Cambodia and no Khmer Rouge genocide. Laos and its tribal peoples would have been spared their ordeal.
I find these arguments very compelling. The only counter argument to them is to point our atrocities where everyone wants to help: Darfur and Rwanda, for example. Pfaff counters that there is nothing in his prescription that stops international efforts at policing and so forth. However, he notes that even still, much care must be taken to assure that more good than bad is done.
If you are at all interested in foreign policy and especially the abuses of the Bush Jr years, I highly recommend reading The Irony of Manifest Destiny. It will make you think, even if it doesn’t provide final answers.